Last year, Europe’s biggest meat processor and the world’s largest pork exporter Danish Crown launched what it described as its “biggest advertising campaign ever.” On TV, newspaper ads, the radio, and billboards across Denmark, the company announced that “pigs are more climate-friendly than you think” and put pink-green stickers on its pork products, referring to pigs slaughtered by the company as “climate-controlled.”
Faced with immediate criticism from consumer organizations accusing Danish Crown of greenwashing, it stopped promoting the first slogan. The company, however, is still using the “climate-controlled pig” claim even after three complaints, including one from Greenpeace Denmark, reported the campaign to the Danish consumer protection agency.
Following Danish Crown’s refusal to withdraw the slogan, three Denmark-based non-profit organizations, the Vegetarian Society of Denmark, the Climate Movement, and the green student movement Den Grønne Studenterbevægelse, have jointly filed Denmark’s first climate lawsuit against the pork producer.
Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl, general secretary at the Vegetarian Society of Denmark, regards the term “climate-friendly” as misleading because pork would still be more climate-damaging than plant-based products even if the meat industry managed to cut emissions significantly. “When consumers believe that ‘Oh, there is such a thing as more ‘climate-friendly meat!’ then it becomes more difficult to change consumer patterns,” Dragsdahl says. “It’s muddying the whole debate.”
In response to the looming lawsuit, Danish Crown’s Communications Director Astrid Gade Nielsen stated that the company does not plan to withdraw the campaign. “We believe that the program that forms the basis of the ‘climate-controlled pig’ campaign is reasonably robust,” Nielsen said, “as all pig shareholders in Danish Crown have committed to reducing their CO2 footprint by 50 percent by 2030.”
Kristine Clement, campaign lead of agriculture and forest at Greenpeace Denmark, describes Danish Crown’s campaigns as “a clear case of greenwashing” and urges the company to withdraw them immediately. “Danish Crown is fooling the public and delaying the necessary transition of how we produce and consume food to protect their own market,” Clement says. “Instead, we need to reduce Denmark’s record production of meat and scale up on plant-based food to meet our national climate targets and global commitments.”
Danish Crown’s emissions
Livestock production in Denmark is a striking example of large-scale meat producers impeding national climate targets. According to a new study by New York University researchers, Danish Crown’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently equivalent to 29 percent of Denmark’s carbon footprint and will be responsible for 42 percent of its emissions allowed under the Paris Agreement by 2030 if current meat consumption trends continue.
On its website, Danish Crown claims that it’s striving to become “the world’s most sustainable and successful meat producer” by 2030 and that Danish farmers have already reduced the carbon footprint of pork sold by Danish Crown by 25 percent since 2005. This claim, however, is based on an Aarhus University study commissioned by Danish Crown that environmental experts have criticized for not including emissions caused by indirect land use.
“According to the UN, indirect land use accounts for approximately 11 percent of the total climate impact globally and can account for approximately 50 percent of the climate footprint of food production,” says life cycle assessment expert Jannick Schmidt from Aalborg University. “If you omit indirect land use, you paint a false impression of a product’s total carbon emissions.”
The pork report used by Danish Crown to back its climate claim isn’t its first controversial cooperation with the University of Aarhus. In 2019, Aarhus University withdrew a study about the climate impact of beef when an investigation found that Danish Crown and Landbrug & Fødevarer, a Danish agricultural industry group, had influenced and co-written the report.
Livestock’s climate impact
Livestock production in Denmark is one of the world’s most striking examples of how large-scale meat production threatens climate targets. With 62 percent of its land used for agriculture, Denmark is one of the most cultivated countries in Europe, and according to a report by six Danish sustainability organizations, 80 percent of Denmark’s agricultural land—half of the entire country—is used to grow fodder for farmed animals.
While the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) estimate that livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of human-caused emissions continues to prevail in discussions about livestock emissions, environmental campaigners, as well as scientists, are increasingly pointing to the carbon opportunity costs of animal agriculture. As the example of Denmark shows, industrial animal agriculture covers large areas of land that cannot be used to regrow natural vegetation that binds more carbon in the soil than agricultural land.
Creating legal precedent
According to Clement from Greenpeace, Danish Crown plans to roll out the “climate-controlled pigs” campaign in Sweden, Germany, and Poland too. But like the recent climate trial against Shell that resulted in a Dutch court ordering the oil giant to deepen its greenhouse gas emission goals, the lawsuit against Danish Crown could create a legal precedent.
Clement hopes that the legal action taken against Danish Crown will curb the company’s greenwashing activities. “If we stop this campaign in Denmark,” she says, “we can stop them from using the same misinformation campaign in other markets as well.”
In addition to reigning in Danish Crown, Dragsdahl from the Vegetarian Society of Denmark wants the lawsuit to discourage other meat companies from greenwashing campaigns. “This is spreading more and more in other countries as well, all sorts of greenwashing claims on products,” he says. “Someone has to draw a line in the sand before this gets out of hand and just becomes completely confusing for consumers.”
He regards the fact that Denmark’s first climate lawsuit involves a meat company as “very fitting.” While the Danish government has established a clear course of action for industries such as transportation and energy to reach Denmark’s 2030 climate target, Dragsdahl explains, politicians have yet to reach a deal that addresses agricultural emissions. “They keep delaying and delaying it,” he says. “It appears like agriculture, or more specifically, that animal agriculture is getting a special treatment while all other sectors have to pay the price and adjust.”
Caroline is a journalist and staff writer at Sentient Media focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.